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How to Date Men When You Hate Men

Blythe Roberson. Flatiron, $19.99 (224p) ISBN 978-1-250-19342-1

Roberson, a researcher at the Late Show with Stephen Colbert, looks through a millennial lens at modern love in this laugh-out-loud commentary on dating and her lack of success at it. Peppering her narrative with references to sociological studies and quotes from literature (on unrequited love, for instance, she looks to Walt Whitman: “I loved a person ardently, and my love was not/returned”), Roberson emphasizes her main point that dating is equally painstaking endeavor and joyful venture. She lays it all out on the table—including a list of men who she believed to be flirting with her, but later found out, in one example with a guy who liked all her tweets, that he was “just on my phone a lot” checking Twitter. Mixed in with the amusing anecdotes are thoughtful observations on the classic pitfalls of dating—like the fallacy of the “you deserve better than me” breakup line or the misogynistic connotations behind being told that love will come “when you least expect it.” This is a perfect book for women of all ages who have found that, despite their best efforts, dating men rarely works out in their favor. (Jan.)

Reviewed on 11/16/2018 | Details & Permalink

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Hero Dogs: How a Pack of Rescues, Rejects, and Strays Became America’s Greatest Disaster-Search Partners

Wilma Melville, with Paul Lobo. St. Martin’s, $28.99 (336p) ISBN 978-1-250-17991-3

Melville, a canine search-and-rescue handler who was inspired to launch the National Disaster Search Dog Foundation (SDF) after volunteering to help look for Oklahoma City bombing survivors in 1995, shares the struggles of establishing and maintaining the organization. She details the rigorous work that goes into preparing the dogs and their handlers, emphasizing her good fortune in meeting with Pluis Davern, the SDF’s gifted trainer. Melville doesn’t pull any punches, sharing tales of needless infighting among competing search-and-rescue organizations (dog trainers tend to be type-A, since “they’re used to being obeyed”), as well as within her own group. The organization made great strides in terms of producing highly trained animals, but struggled to attract support until 9/11 showed the necessity of its work. Melville skillfully recounts how the dogs assisted with the nail-biting search for survivors in lower Manhattan’s vast wreckage. That experience, for both animals and handlers, became crucial when Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005, and then when an earthquake leveled Haiti in 2010. It makes for a harrowing, often heartbreaking, yet inspirational tale as Melville eloquently explores the small victories and wrenching losses of the dogs’ much-needed work. Agent: Elizabeth Winick Rubinstein, McIntosh & Otis. (Jan.)

Reviewed on 11/16/2018 | Details & Permalink

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No Beast So Fierce: The Terrifying True Story of the Champawat Tiger, the Deadliest Animal in History

Dane Huckelbridge. Morrow, $26.99 (304p) ISBN 978-0-06-267884-3

Historian Huckelbridge (The United States of Beer) showcases his storytelling skills effectively in this suspenseful look at “the most prolific serial killer... the world has ever seen,” a Royal Bengal tiger that purportedly killed more than 400 people in Nepal and India in the early 20th century. The narrative’s dramatic impact is lessened by endemic speculation, including attributing thoughts to the animal itself. The facts require no such embellishment to hold the reader’s attention: a single tiger, prevented by a mouth wound from subsisting on its normal, more agile prey, began hunting people in 1900, kicking off a reign of terror throughout the Himalayan foothills that was ended in 1907 by Jim Corbett, a railway employee and noted hunter retained by the British government to kill the beast. Huckelbridge conducted much of his research using Corbett’s own book, and corroboration of many details is lacking; Huckelbridge even presents an epilogue that attempts to validate the Champawat Tiger’s body count. He is more convincing, and intriguing, in contending that the bloody episode resulted from the British Empire’s “irresponsible forestry tactics, agricultural policies, and hunting practices,” and was thus an avoidable disaster. Despite its flaws, this is a gripping page-turner that also conveys broader lessons about humanity’s relationship with nature. (Feb.)

Reviewed on 11/16/2018 | Details & Permalink

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Morphing Intelligence: From IQ Measurements to Artificial Brains

Catherine Malabou, trans. from the French by Carolyn Shread. Columbia Univ., $28 (224p) ISBN 978-0-231-18736-7

French philosopher Malabou (Before Tomorrow: Epigenesis and Rationality) continues to ponder the ever-evolving definition of intelligence at the dawn of AI in a directionless and unprovocative analysis. This slender volume centers on what Malabou dubs the three “metamorphoses” of intelligence throughout recent history, from the innatist view, which prevailed for much of the 20th century, through the era of epigenetics in the 1980s, which demonstrated the role and importance of neuroplasticity, to the present moment, which finds humanity on the cusp of artificial intelligence. Quoting heavily from such thinkers as Michel Foucault and Jean Piaget, she argues that at this moment it must be conceded that human intelligence is no different from artificial intelligence, as “a set of dispositions that are exposed, fragile, open, and contingent in their topological organization and that do not reflect any predestination or plan.” As such, Malabou wonders why serious thinkers do not “give up intelligence as an independent philosophical question.” She hastily outlines some vague ideas for educational reform, such as the “neurohumanities”— a fusion of the humanities and neuroscience—to accommodate this paradigm shift. But Malabou underdelivers as a philosopher and neuroscientist, providing very little new insight to the topics addressed. (Feb.)

Reviewed on 11/16/2018 | Details & Permalink

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Gumbo Life: Tales from the Roux Bayou

Ken Wells. Norton, $26.95 (288p) ISBN 978-0-393-25483-9

Journalist and novelist Wells (Crawfish Mountain) serves up a piquant history of gumbo, a quintessential Cajun dish and “the Zen food of an otherwise un-Zenlike culture.” There are few rules about what makes a gumbo a gumbo, and Wells covers myriad origin stories and myths (was it brought by the Acadians or slaves? Or derived from Native American cuisine? Perhaps all of them?) in arguably too great detail. Once the history, theories, and counter-theories are dispatched, Wells hits his stride and takes readers to, among other places, the annual gumbo cook-off in New Iberia, La., where cooking and copious drinking begin before dawn; a factory that churns out gumbo by the ton for supermarkets; plenty of gumbo-serving restaurants—from neighborhood joints to the esteemed Commander’s Palace in New Orleans; and into his family history and, specifically, his mother’s kitchen. In Wells’s telling, for every cook in Louisiana, there’s a different gumbo recipe, and each can only hope to be second best in the world. The best, of course, is mama’s. Wells clearly knows his stuff, and his enthusiasm for the region and cuisine is palpable, though he can veer into Rockwell-on-the-bayou style nostalgia overkill. This is required reading for gumbo aficionados and addicts, and those who aspire to be. (Feb.)

Reviewed on 11/16/2018 | Details & Permalink

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See You in the Piazza: New Places to Discover in Italy

Frances Mayes. Crown, $27 (448p) ISBN 978-0-451-49769-7

Mayes (Under the Tuscan Sun) gives a sparkling and irresistible view of Italy in her eighth book, in which she and her husband explore the country from north to south. Mayes begins in Piedmont and ends in Catania, Sicily. Along the way she treats readers to “oh-pull-over” views, looks inside glorious churches, descriptions of innumerable meals (in Sardegna “the seafood fritto misto comes to us hot and crisp, and the grilled fish under a heap of chopped celery and tomatoes”), and recipes for the dishes they ate (e.g., gnocchi with wild hare from Friuli-Venezia Giulia). Mayes weaves into her narrative historical background (in mid-11th-century Puglia, Frederick II “built castle, mint, treasury and... brought twenty thousand Arab Muslims from Sicily” as troops) and practical travel tips, such as not checking luggage on planes and packing gold-colored sandals (they transform casual to dressy). Mayes has a wonderful eye for detail as she lyrically describes her surroundings, like a river that’s “a long skein in the moonlight, as though a woman has unfurled her silvery gray hair.” Travel, she explains, provides a chance to see life anew and helps form rich memories. Readers will want to take their time, savoring this poetic travelogue like a smooth wine. (Mar.)

Reviewed on 11/16/2018 | Details & Permalink

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The Lady from the Black Lagoon: Hollywood Monsters and the Lost Legacy of Milicent Patrick

Mallory O’Meara. Hanover Square, $26.99 (336p) ISBN 978-1-335-93780-3

In this captivating and exhaustively researched biography, screenwriter and producer O’Meara chronicles the largely unknown story of artist and actress Milicent Patrick, designer of the monster in the 1954 film Creature from the Black Lagoon. O’Meara traces Patrick’s journey from precocious art student to her tenure as one of the first female animators at Disney and her discovery by Universal Studios’ head of makeup, Bud Westmore. After designing the creature for the hit film and being sent on a whirlwind press tour, Patrick became the target of Westmore’s jealousy, was fired, and subsequently was denied credit for her work. O’Meara also shares her own filmmaking experiences in modern-day Hollywood, including being accused of getting a job by sleeping with the boss and being sexually harassed by a voice actor, to highlight the continuing challenges for women in the film industry. These personal anecdotes may initially appear a distraction from Patrick’s story, but O’Meara’s enthusiasm for her subject soon overcomes all objections. This is a fascinating slice of Hollywood history with a feminist slant, correcting a sexist wrong from decades ago and restoring Patrick to her rightful place of esteem. Agent: Brady McReynolds, JABberwocky Literary Agency. (Mar.)

Reviewed on 11/16/2018 | Details & Permalink

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A Human’s Guide to Machine Intelligence: How Algorithms Are Shaping Our Lives and How We Can Stay in Control

Kartik Hosanagar. Viking, $27 (272p) ISBN 978-0-525-56088-3

Hosanagar, a Wharton professor of technology and digital business, attempts, with mixed success, to explain his field to a lay audience impacted by “algorithmic decision-making.” He covers overly familiar terrain to begin with, discussing the increasing role of artificial intelligence in online commerce, social media, and news reporting to demonstrate the topic’s importance. Where he adds value is in using his expertise to discuss how algorithms work, and how the designs of some, such as Amazon and Netflix’s personalization algorithms, reduce diversity of choice for consumers. The inherent complexity of algorithms, however, presents an obstacle to comprehension that Hosanagar never fully overcomes. In a concluding section, Hosanagar proposes a bill of rights for people affected by algorithms (that is to say, almost everyone), a well-intentioned idea that comes across as impractical. Making accessible to the average person a “description of the data used to train” algorithms and “an explanation regarding the procedures used by the algorithms,” to pick two of his suggestions, would be a daunting task. Nonetheless, Hosanagar deserves credit for valiantly attempting, throughout this thoughtful treatise, to widen understanding of a technology central to modern society. (Mar.)

Reviewed on 11/16/2018 | Details & Permalink

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The End of the Myth: From the Frontier to the Border Wall in the Mind of America

Greg Grandin. Holt, $30 (384p) ISBN 978-1-250-17982-1

As New York University historian Grandin observes, President Trump’s aim of building a wall along the American border with Mexico breaks the nation’s tradition of “fleeing forward” to a supposedly ever-expanding frontier, in the hope of “avoid[ing] a true reckoning with its social problems.” He recounts that, in the 1760s, the British Crown’s refusal to allow white settlers to move across the Appalachian Mountains became one of the many grievances that sparked the American Revolution. As the U.S. became ever more industrial and capitalist, the supposedly empty lands to the west promised prosperity and freedom for poor white men and expansionary opportunities for the sons of Southern planters, as well as new uses for surplus slaves. In the wake of the Civil War, white Americans could look westward to rejuvenate the nation, and some African-Americans created new lives in all-black farming communities isolated from the threat of racism. To Grandin, Trump’s rhetoric about physically closing the southern border symbolizes the end of centuries of belief that ongoing geographical or trade-based expansion will ensure resources are plentiful enough that “everyone can be free”; without that mind-set, he argues, there’s nowhere in the U.S. for Americans to go to escape the country’s internal problems. This is a deeply polemical work, and should be read as such, but it offers a provocative historical exploration of a contentious current issue. (Mar.)

Reviewed on 11/16/2018 | Details & Permalink

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The Age of Disenchantments: The Epic Story of Spain’s Most Notorious Literary Family and the Long Shadow of the Spanish Civil War

Aaron Shulman. Ecco, $29.99 (496p) ISBN 978-0-06-248419-2

In this sweeping, ambitious debut, journalist Shulman offers a group biography of a family indelibly marked by the Spanish Civil War. He begins with the family’s patriarch, Leopoldo Panero, a noted poet who abandoned the left-wing Republicans to defect to the right-wing Nationalists during the war, eventually rising high in General Franco’s regime to assume the role of unofficial poet laureate. Shulman also profiles in depth Leopoldo’s wife, Felicidad, who endured their troubled marriage—despite proclaiming that “family is sacred!” Leopoldo had many affairs—through an intense, albeit platonic, relationship with another poet. Of their three sons, the oldest, Juan Luis, sought, with limited success, to assume his father’s role after Leopoldo died in 1962; the middle son, Leopoldo Maria, was arrested after urging people not to vote in a pro-Franco referendum in 1967 and later attempted suicide; while the youngest, Michi, suffered from mental illness. In 1976, the year after Franco’s death, a documentary, The Disenchantment, depicted the surviving Paneros grappling with Leopoldo’s legacy; a viewing of the film inspired Shulman to write this book. Prodigiously researched and beautifully written, Shulman’s work reveals a remarkable family of “refreshing weirdness, poetic obsessions, and [a] sacrilegious taste for destruction” as a microcosm of Spain’s tortured 20th century. (Mar.)

Reviewed on 11/16/2018 | Details & Permalink

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